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SIEGEL: Ban unpaid internships

Unpaid internships are bad for the economy — and you

<p>If the internship opportunities we're presented with are accurate, we are worth nothing.&nbsp;</p>

If the internship opportunities we're presented with are accurate, we are worth nothing. 

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Know your worth. That’s a classic piece of advice given to any young professional seeking employment or internships in any field. However, if the internship opportunities we’re presented with are accurate, we’re worth nothing. Unpaid internships, which account for 43 percent of internships at for-profit companies and most public sector internships, are now a major part of entering the workforce — they shouldn’t be. These unpaid positions are a detriment to interns, low-income students and the overall economy. To fix that, we need to ban unpaid internships entirely. 

The common defense of unpaid internships is that they offer you experience and provide you the opportunity to get your foot in the door. However, these defenses are simply not true. If you take an unpaid internship, statistically you will be treated much worse in the job market than someone with a paid internship. Paid interns are nearly twice as likely to receive a job offer after an internship. The same study found that people who took unpaid internships and received a job offer were offered less salary than people who took no internship at all. Despite doing work that is essential to the functionality of companies, unpaid interns are offered $19,000 less than the median paid-intern at various companies. In general, students who take unpaid internships will see fewer opportunities and earn less money than those who take paid roles. Despite unpaid interns performing worse in the job market than paid interns, the fact remains that having any internship experience leads to higher employability after college. That’s a problem for students who can’t afford unpaid internships.

On average, an unpaid internship costs the intern $6,800. Those costs can increase dramatically depending on the city or location of the internship. For many students with wealthier families, their parents will take on the expenses of unpaid internships. Other students — who don’t come from an elevated socio-economic background — don’t have the same financial support. Additionally, some schools even charge students per credit for internships that offer credit. Often, these charges amount to more than $1,000 per credit. In other words, students are essentially paying their school to have the opportunity to work for an employer for free. These costs are incredibly prohibitive to most students seeking internships — many unpaid interns rely on living rent-free or are dependent on money from their parents to afford basic living expenses. 

What do students do if they don’t have family money to fall back on? The costs of taking an unpaid role are amplified with low-income students who also incur the opportunity cost of not taking other roles. Plenty of unpaid interns, like PayOurInterns founder Carlos Vera, have to work multiple jobs just to afford the basic costs of living in Washington D.C. Still, many low-income students and students of color are locked out of opportunities simply because they can’t afford to take on unpaid roles. Take Congress, for example, where an overwhelming majority of interns are white and wealthy. There’s the infamous Paul Ryan selfie with the entire Congressional Republican intern class and not a single person of color in sight. It’s easy to attribute it to the politics of the GOP, but the Congressional intern classes are overwhelmingly white because they remain unpaid, not because of party politics. When employers offer internships based on prestige and nothing else, they leave out an enormous pool of talent that is otherwise underrepresented in these fields. Though they may not explicitly say it, the basic assumption of companies offering unpaid internships is that any applicant must be wealthy enough to afford to live in a major city with no real income for three months. 

Unpaid internships also have a very real effect on the job market. During recessions, job seekers and current students are hungrier for jobs that keep disappearing. Those seeking professional experience in school are providing major companies with an endless flow of free labor that is eliminating the need for entry-level professionals. Over time, we have legitimized free labor as a way to gain entry into industries, instead of working in real entry-level positions. Even in 2010, recent graduates were being forced into internship roles because entry-level positions simply didn’t exist anymore. When unemployment is high — and it likely will be for the coming months and years — employers displace full-time workers by hiring a continuous stream of unpaid interns. 

There are plenty of steps we can take to remedy the effects of unpaid internships. For starters, colleges can stop pushing students towards internships that don’t offer compensation or payment. If schools agree that we are worth more than $0 per hour, they shouldn’t be promoting unpaid internships in the first place. Yet U.Va. still allows unpaid roles to be advertised on Handshake and career fairs and lets companies who exploit unpaid interns recruit heavily from our student body.  More importantly, however, we can get serious about helping interns by banning unpaid internships entirely. They serve as another obstacle for low-income students, and they have no real purpose other than funneling students towards companies that take advantage of their skills. 

Jeremy Siegel is an Opinion Columnist for The Cavalier Daily. He can be reached at

The opinions expressed in this column are not necessarily those of The Cavalier Daily. Columns represent the views of the authors alone.


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